SIBELIUS: Pelleas et Melisande – Complete Incidental Music; Music for a Scene; Valse lyrique, Op. 96a; Autrefois – Scene pastorale, Op. 96b; Valse chevaleresque, Op. 96c; Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob von Julin – Pia Pajala, sop./ Sari Nordqvist, mezzo-sop./ Turku Philharmonic Orch./ Leif Segerstam – Naxos 8.573301, 57:49 (7/31/15) ****:

Recorded at the Turku Concert Hall (20-24 January and 8-12 September 2014), this incidental music from 1904 marks a commission for Sibelius from the Swedish Theatre to compose music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas et Melisande, a theme embraced also by Debussy, Faure, and Schoenberg. The incidental music comprises ten sections, some of which Sibelius collectors know from prior readings by Sir Thomas Beecham.  The drama, much like Tristan, concerns a fatal love triangle – Melisande, Golaud, and Pelleas – a romantic conceit already exploited by Dante in his depiction of Francesca of Ravenna. In this expansive reading, conductor Segerstam includes the ballad, “The Three Blind Sisters,” which serves as a symbolic parable for the drama proper. Sibelius manages some elegant colorations, such as his Andantino pastorale for winds and strings, his Scene 4. The succeeding piece, the Allegretto (Prelude) contains the lightest, perkiest figures in the otherwise somber score.  The musical syntax appears an extension of the harmonic and rhythmic language we know from the various legends and historic scenes Sibelius had composed for his Opp. 22 and 25. The cello and English horn capture King Arkel’s conversation with Melisande. Melisande’s passing on her sickbed entails a large Andante that provides the Prelude for Scene 2. The dark hues indeed hint at similar colors in music of Gabriel Faure.

Another work from 1904 while Sibelius resided at Jarvenpaa, the Music for a Scene alternates between two moods, one tormented and rife with conflict, and the subsequent dance, which enjoys “Spanish” or “Moorish” touches, such as the use of tambourines. The dark, opening motif could easily be ascribed to Wagner or to Chabrier. The triptych from 1921, the waltz pieces that form Op. 96, derive from the most part from piano pieces Sibelius decided to orchestrate. The one exception, Autrefois (Olden Days, 1919), originally emerged earlier as an orchestral opus, later to be transcribed for piano. The lightness of the scoring – which includes a female duet – likely nods to Tchaikovsky, perhaps to Waldteufel and to the later Glazunov. Anyone who detects certain strains from the composer’s own Valse triste cannot entirely be mistaken.
In 1925, Sibelius conceived yet another waltz based on a tune supplied by a local industrialist Jakob von Julin, especially for the occasion of the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare, the proceeds of the concert (March 9) intended for the founding of a children’s hospital. Conductor Segerstam and his venerable ensemble – the oldest orchestral organization in Finland – do plastic and nostalgic justice to these scores, of which the Pelleas will command rehearings for its mysterious colors.

—Gary Lemco